Here’s a concept: Starlight indoors.
It might take a bit of getting used to. Starlight Theatre, after all, is one of the few remaining outdoor theaters in the country, and attending Starlight shows has become a local tradition — a multigenerational family experience which, when the weather cooperates, can be memorable and charming.
But this week Starlight Theatre subscribers will descend on downtown Kansas City when the venerable nonprofit theater company presents its own production of “Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida” at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
The show is part of the regular Starlight season, and that’s where things get tricky: accommodating about 14,000 season subscribers in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, which for “Aida” will seat about 1,700 for each performance. (Starlight seats about 8,000).
“Of course it created some challenges,” said Denton Yockey, Starlight’s president and executive producer. “Now, we could have done it for just a week down there and we could have found a way to get everyone in and not worry about selling any single tickets (for the general public) to the show.
“But, we decided qualitatively that not all of our subscribers might have been happy with their seats that way. So we decided to extend the run of our show.” Recent 100-plus degree heat was not the reason for the move. Use of the Kauffman Center was planned months ago.
The run was initially scheduled for 12 performances — the usual run for subscribers at Starlight is six — and now a 13th has been added. The shows include matinees each Saturday and Sunday. That decision, Yockey said, will allow the sale of about 8,000 single tickets.
Yockey said every effort was made to place subscribers in seats roughly comparable to their seats at Starlight, although the logistics are markedly different. At Starlight, seating is on one level and anyone watching from the back row probably knows how it feels to watch a flea circus.
The Kauffman has orchestra and parterre sections on the main floor with three upper sections — grand tier, mezzanine and balcony. But the configuration of stage to audience allows a fairly intimate viewing experience.
“It may not be readily apparent to them that they (the seats) are comparable or even better,” Yockey said. He added that viewers seated in the mezzanine at the Kauffman could actually be closer to the stage than they might be at Starlight. “We are introducing our subscribers, many of them, to the Kauffman Center for the very first time,” Yockey said.
Yockey said he also had to take into account human behavior. Theatergoers, especially season-ticket buyers, like their comfort zones.
“Customers are creatures of habit, and they develop a relationship not only with a venue but with an organization that sells them tickets, that sells them a product,” he said. “They develop a relationship with customer service reps they call up to buy a ticket. We are easing our subscribers into the transition into the Kauffman Center. They trust us, and we’re telling them it’s going to be OK.”
Starlight is renting the Kauffman for “Aida,” Yockey said. And unlike shows at Starlight, his company won’t receive the revenue from parking and concessions. Parking revenues at Starlight largely go toward hiring security and parking personnel in Swope Park and the Kansas City police officers who direct traffic outside the park at the end of the evening. But concession sales can be significant. Some concessions will be available, but proceeds go to the center.
Starlight has already established a presence at the Kauffman by virtue of its children’s theater season, which was inaugurated earlier this year with weekend productions of “Narnia the Musical” and “Aladdin.”
The children’s season, which Starlight produces in partnership with the Kauffman Center, will continue as an annual two-show season next year. Eventually, Yockey said, he’d like to offer more than two shows on the children’s series, but the popularity of the Kauffman as a venue makes scheduling a challenge. “Aladdin” and “Narnia” attracted a combined audience of about 19,000, he said.
“There was a lot to learn in terms of what people are going to buy and when and where,” Yockey said. “It becomes a grand experiment. But overall I think we were pleased out of the gate.”
In any case, the children’s shows aren’t big money-makers for either Starlight or the Kauffman.
“This is really a mission-based program, but we were pleased with the financial outcome in that we didn’t lose any money,” he said. “I think we were in the black by a thousand or two when it was all said and done. … It’s not part of our overall goals for us to be making money at it. It’s about serving the community and audience development.” Starlight also hopes to be in the black at the end of “Aida.”
Yockey said there won’t be an indoor show during the regular Starlight season next summer, but there could be down the road.
“We wanted to evaluate what happened this summer, and we had to start planning a 2013 season like a year ago,” he said. “We can’t evaluate what happened this summer until it’s over. We always knew if we did it again there would be a leap year, a year that we would skip over, so really it will be an analysis of what our patrons want the financial analysis. … As with almost everything we do, we anticipate getting wildly polarized reactions (from patrons) and then we’ll take a barometric reading of those reactions.”
Starlight Theatre tried an indoor winter season at the Midland Theater in the 1990s, but it was not a success and was not repeated. Still, with Starlight’s presence at the Kauffman, it’s reasonable to wonder if the oldest presenting/producing theater organization in Kansas City might someday be a stronger presence at the city’s gleaming new performing arts center.
Theater League is already the resident Broadway presenter at the Kauffman and will stage three shows there in the 2012-13 season — “Tap Dogs,” “Hair” and “Stomp.”
Mark Edelman, founder and president of Theater League, said that between the league’s shows at the Kauffman, the Broadway Across America shows at the Music Hall, Starlight’s summer season and its children series, the Kansas City market is absorbing about as much touring musical theater as it can handle.
“There’s only so many things that tour,” Edelman said. “In Kansas City, thanks to the Music Hall, the Kauffman and Starlight, we’re getting all of them. Now, we’re getting all of them as quickly as we’d like to but it’s all about (availability).”